Long Reads

Why Breakfast Is Better in the UK

A love letter to the “Full English.”

February  4, 2016

The full English breakfast is one of my great passions.

Breakfast in general is one of my great passions, but “the full English” (as it’s often called over there, to be a little snappier) is by far my favorite iteration.

A "Full English" breakfast. Photo by Flickr/Alan Levine

I am the hugest fan of a savory breakfast, and the full English is nothing but savory—eggs, bacon, and sausage are the heartiest ingredients, joined by mushrooms, baked beans, potatoes, grilled tomatoes, toast, sometimes black pudding (a type of blood sausage made with pork fat or beef suet, pork blood, and oatmeal), and sometimes bubble and squeak (a traditional English side dish made with shallow-fried leftover vegetables, mostly potato and cabbage). The best kind of full English breakfast will have a coffee or tea included in its price.

The meal as we know it began its life in the Victorian era, when a prosperous middle class was emerging and wanted to demonstrate its wealth and social upbringing by eating a lavish and varied morning meal. During the Industrial Revolution in England, many members of the working classes began to eat a full English breakfast on a regular basis, too, since it made sense to eat a large, hearty breakfast before embarking on a day of manual labor.

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Today, the full English breakfast is available in every kind of breakfast establishment, from greasy spoon to elegant hotel, and certain parts vary depending on exact geographical location and cultural affiliation. There’s the Cornish breakfast, the Ulster breakfast, the Irish breakfast, the Scottish breakfast, and the Welsh breakfast, to name a few.

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Top Comment:
“For me, a Full English is something to be languished over, both in the preparation and the eating, and the essential constituents are bacon, sausages, black pudding, scrambled eggs, beans and field mushrooms. Toast is an anomaly. If you're going to include bread, it has to be fried.”
— Debbie C.

The traditional Irish breakfast includes brown soda bread, and some Scottish breakfasts include white pudding, similar to black pudding but without any pork blood. Once, visiting Edinburgh for a few days, I ate a full breakfast at an African restaurant. It comprised mostly the same items as any British full breakfast, but with the addition of plantains.

As a general rule, the full English breakfast is a great dish: Eggs, two kinds of breakfast meat, toast, potatoes, beans—how badly can anyone really screw it up? There are so many moving parts to this dish, but in general only two that really vary: the toast and the potatoes. Toast can be white or wheat or seven-grain (typically referred to in Britain as granary), can come buttered or not (though if it comes un-buttered, butter will always accompany the breakfast), and can come in a huge variety of thickness. Potatoes show up usually either as small roasted potatoes with various herbs, or as hash browns.

The eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes, however, are essentially always the same, so any deviations from the norm can either make or break the experience.

Just six of my many full English breakfasts.

My favorite digression in my exploration of the English breakfast was in the beans at one establishment. In general, the typical English breakfast beans are your regulation canned baked beans. Now don’t get me wrong—I love those beans. Whatever sauce or combination of sauces they’re canned with is a little bit sweet, so mopping up the bean sauce with toast makes for some nice dessert-esque bites.

The alternate kind of beans I experienced—just once—were butter beans, much larger and slightly firmer than baked beans. They were not sweet, and felt a little more healthful than baked beans because they were prepared in a much lighter saucer. Although no one goes to a full English breakfast expecting to consume a plate of healthy-feeling food, of course, the change was refreshing. The ability to add spinach to another English breakfast for an additional charge of £1.75 (about $2.50) made for a similarly positive experience.

But let me tell you about the best English breakfast I ever ate. It was the best not only because of what was on my plate, but because of what was not—namely, there were no grilled tomatoes. Even as someone who does not like tomatoes in general, I think I can safely say that grilling tomatoes serves no positive purpose in the world. If a tomato is good, it should be served simply and raw. The grilling not only intends to disguise bad tomatoes but is just a bad way to prepare a theoretically fresh vegetable.

So anyway, my best English breakfast. For one thing, it was cheap. Most full breakfasts run for around 8 or 9 pounds, plus 2 to 3 for a drink. You generally can’t pay less than 10 pounds (that’s about 15 dollars) for a full breakfast plus drink, which is kind of a lot. My breakfast plus drink, when I ate The Best English Breakfast Ever, was 8.80 in pounds (the breakfast alone was 5.50, which is about 25% cheaper than average). And that might seem like a negligible difference, but when you eat as much breakfast as I do, it really adds up.

So it was cheap, one good thing. I had a choice of fried or scrambled eggs, another good thing. The best thing was that the regular full English on the menu came with eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, and toast, but with the option to substitute baked beans for any one of the above items. So of course I substituted beans for the tomatoes. At no extra charge!

What I have learned from my quest to find the best full English breakfast in Oxford, where I was based for most of the ten months I spent in the U.K. over the past three years, is that choices are really the thing that can make a full breakfast great.

The option of fried or scrambled eggs? Great.
The option to substitute baked beans for tomatoes, or to add some spinach to my dish? Great.
The option of coffee or tea, especially when included in the price? The greatest.

I won’t make the claim that starting your day with a full English ensures a great day, but it at least ensures a great start.

Do you go sweet or savory at breakfast time? Tell us in the comments below!

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Annie Diamond is a poet, breakfast enthusiast, and recent graduate of Barnard College, where she majored in English. Her poetry has most recently been published in The Fem, an online feminist literary journal.


Steven March 9, 2016
Ultimate is the Ulster Fry in Northern Ireland - which includes a soda farl, not the brown soda bread mentioned above, and potato bread. Unbeatable for the morning after the night before. Black and white pudding are par for the course
Daniel T. March 4, 2016
I'm sure the white blood sausage in Ireland is called 'Drisheen' (sp?): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drisheen
Daniel T. March 4, 2016
£10 ? Are you eating at Fortnum and Mason or Harrods ? A fried brekkie might be a tenner in a pretentious gastro pub, but you'd have to be off off your rocker to pay that. Spinach ? In a cooked breakfast ? Nope.
Fried bread, 'a fried slice', is often served (yuck..) but I think toast is better to mop up the bean juice with. I love a fried tomato, but some hate it, as can be seen here. Definitely needs beans and mushrooms. Hash browns are an American thing and not part of a traditional English cooked breakfast. Good quality sausages and bacon are important too, none of that think, crispy american bacon nonsense and it must always, ALWAYS come with a large mug of strong tea, English breakfast or Assam, none of that floral Earl Grey muck ! :-)
Jeremy B. March 4, 2016
Coming from Bury in Lancashire, England I have to insist on the inclusion of black pudding to a full English breakfast(Bury being the town that created this must-have). Potatoes are a reintroduction from your side of the pond, usually in the shape of deep fried frozen hash browns and have no place at breakfast to my mind. I'm all for a tomato, best well fried in the pan after the bacon. Bury black pudding. A world class export!
Juile C. March 4, 2016
My husband and son went on a coast to coast ride in the UK a few years back and stayed in many Bed & Breakfasts along the way. Every morning they would look forward to a “Full English” to set them up nicely for the ride ahead. They rated the accommodation on how good the breakfast was rather than the rooms.
Valerie M. March 4, 2016
I'm from England, but living in Cali now. I totally agree with the comment about "fried bread" - and I have no idea where the idea that the English don't eat toast with this breakfast comes from? I've always seen it offered - how else can anyone wipe their plate clean??
Traditionally, everything is fried, including the tomatoes and mushrooms - but by "fried" I mean cooked in a small amount of oil in a pan, not deep fried. As for the beans - English Heinz Baked beans all the way!!! The American Heinz baked beans taste different :-(
jude March 4, 2016
I'm based in Lincolnshire and our local cafe has just upped the price of its breakfast from 99p - thats Lincolnshire Sausage, bacon, hash brown, eggs, beans and toast - to a whopping £1.25!
Anne E. February 27, 2016
My daughter's in Oxford now. Where did you find this glorious breakfast?
ptox February 15, 2016
No tomatoes? Come on. Roast summer fresh tomatores for an hour with a bit of salt, pepper, thyme, and olive oil, and tell me they do nothing for you next to a bite of sausage mopped in yolk.
Emma S. February 15, 2016
Roasted tomatoes are great. But beef tomatoes that are cut in half, and grilled just enough to get slightly warm on the cut side, but leaving the rest of the thing raw and watery, are a very common thing in English breakfasts. And that's disgusting.
Emma S. February 15, 2016
The notion that a full English breakfast (or cooked breakfast as many people call it) would cost on average £10 is just not true. Where are you going for such expensive breakfasts? The average everywhere I've lived is about £5. I fully agree that grilled tomatoes are an abomination.
Stephen A. January 31, 2019
Had an Irish fisherman’s breakfast at the Hotel Galway which substituted kippers for the meat portion (2 double filets smoked to perfection and so good I had them the next morning and tried my hardest to encourage others to order them. No luck but I’ve always been adventurous with food). They missed a grand experience, too bad for them
Cathy B. February 7, 2016
I think the fried potatoes or hash browns and toast are a Canadian-USA influence. The Americans are more prone to serving pancakes with their eggs & bacon, but I much prefer a side of toast or a toasted English Muffin, crumpet or bagel. Nothing beats a full breakfast eaten for brunch (between 11 am and 2 pm) on a weekend.
george February 7, 2016
Keeping up the Taffy (Welsh) end, albeit, South Wales. A truly traditional Welsh, breakfast plate has "Lavar Bread" seaweed (aka Nori). Im not a fan of beans either but a well grilled tomato, 'shrooms fried off in the bacon grease and Im yours!
Daniel T. March 4, 2016
Now ya talking !
Denise A. February 6, 2016
Many Full English's here in the London area include what they call Fried Bread. If you've never tried it, I hope you will! Also, have never seen potatoes (in any form) served with a Full English. I'm American, married to a Brit (we both have dual citizenship), currently living outside London. We've been back for 6 years now.
freshparsley February 6, 2016
British, Irish or Scottish breakfast eaten in each country of origin is heaven! Great version of the British can be found at Dandelion in Philadelphia. Baked beans and fried bread round out the eggs and sausages.
Debbie C. February 5, 2016
I'm English, but a Full English Breakfast is a rare treat reserved for high days and holidays. Potatoes rarely feature. Without question, I'd sauté some boiled potatoes If I had some languishing in the fridge, but it wouldn't occur to me to include them as a matter of course. I adore ripe, flavoursome tomatoes, but I don't understand the concept of cooking them as an accompaniment to a Full English. For me, a Full English is something to be languished over, both in the preparation and the eating, and the essential constituents are bacon, sausages, black pudding, scrambled eggs, beans and field mushrooms. Toast is an anomaly. If you're going to include bread, it has to be fried.
sexyLAMBCHOPx February 5, 2016
You can have my beans for your broiled tomatoes. I eat broiled tomatoes (usually Roma) year round for B, L and D.
NYNCtg February 5, 2016
I've got to say I've never seen white pudding in a full Scottish breakfast, I wish as I like it better than black pudding or the fruit pudding my Mother-in-law serves. In my experience the full Scottish comes with Tattie Scones and Flat or Lorne Sausage. And a bowl of porridge to start.
Staci D. March 18, 2018
Exactly. Never seen white sausage here, but tattie scones and Lorne sausage are guaranteed.
Shelley M. February 5, 2016
But what about Spam?
Leyanne T. February 5, 2016
Leyanne T. February 5, 2016
Being English of course I do love the Full English, although I've never seen one served with potatoes of any kind.
On the other hand I do wish we had more places that would do an American style breakfast.. ie waffles/pancakes etc. Having watched many food based TV shows that aim to make you crave dishes such as these I have become very envious of the sheer choice you'd have in a diner/restaurant in the states. My waist-line however, is not envious in the slightest!
lilroseglow February 4, 2016
The English don't ask for much, do they?